How One Man Escaped Iraq and Started an Art Academy in Denver

For many immigrants who come to the United States — starting a life and pursuing their dreams can be difficult. Not only are there language barriers and financial challenges — but immigrations laws are tightening and the amount of refugees allowed in each year is decreasing. Yet one Colorado man wants to serve as a symbol of hope. Ali Ghassan was born and raised in Iraq. After finding a love for art — he left his home country in the midst of war to come to the United States. Here, he worked to become a citizen and founded a classical art academy in Denver.

Ghassan was born in Babylon, Iraq — where his passion as a child was actually for soccer and he dreamed of playing for international clubs. When he was just 14 years old — he developed an injury from the sport and was told he would never be able to play soccer again. Ghassan then poured all of his energy into becoming an artist and went on to receive both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Fine Art from a university in Iraq.

Ghassan with one of his award-winning paintings.

Ghassan left Iraq a few times as conditions in the country grew worse. He spent a few years in Egypt and Jordan. Yet as Al-Qaeda grew stronger — the militant organization began controlling more Iraqi cities and killings became commonplace. It was then, in 2014, that Ghassan left Iraq for good and became a refugee in the United States. Conditions in his home country and the surrounding areas were abysmal.

“I had always wished that God had created me as a dog because the dog was treated in a way more respectful than most humans,” Ghassan said. “We were subjected to harassment by gangs because we did not have any rights.”

Becoming a refugee in the United States is not a simple task. Throughout the 20th century, the United States accepted roughly 100,000 refugees each year. After the September 11 attacks — admissions were practically suspended. That number rebounded in 2008. In 2014 — when Ghassan arrived — a little under 70,000 refugees were granted asylum to enter the country. That number has dropped significantly since then.

At the time, Ghassan had entered into an art competition in Minnesota, where he won first prize. According to Ghassan, that award gained him more recognition and opened the door for him to be accepted into the United States. Ever since then — Ghassan has worked nonstop to pursue his American dream.

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He was first inspired to create an art academy modeled after artists of the European Renaissance. Academies opened during this time period aimed to train students in the craft. Yet when Ghassan went to college for his fine arts training — he felt that the university’s goal was to just push students through to earn their degree without really teaching them formative art skills.

“The studios of great artists were focusing on studying art in a scientific way, such as studying anatomy and the science of colors,” Ghassan said. “These things have disappeared in the art colleges of our time.”

Ghassan was then determined to open an art academy that would teach the same classical approach that art studios in the Renaissance period were based upon. That was when he founded REAL Academy of Art Colorado. Ghassan shared that REAL’s name comes from the phrase “Renaissance Alive” which is meant to honor the realist artists of the Renaissance.

Despite his determination — opening the academy was far from easy. On top of needing finances to start a business — Ghassan experienced the challenge of not knowing English very well and even experienced some racism in the industry. Yet despite these hardships — Ghassan vowed to not look at them as difficulties.

“I just put my goal on the wall to look at on a daily basis so that I could cling to hope and not despair,” Ghassan said. “I had perseverance, patience and hard work in order to reach my goal I had since childhood.”

Part of the reason why Ghassan was able to overcome many start-up costs was due to him doing most of the manual work in starting the academy. Instead of hiring contractors — he did the carpentry work, electrical work and construction himself.

Once the art academy was finally open to students — it became the first and only art school in Colorado to be certified by the Art Renewal Center — one of the world’s leading organizations dedicated to evaluating representational art schools. The school now has a full staff and board of directors and teaches over 40 students.

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Students at the academy are placed in small class sizes so that they can receive individual instruction and learn in a supportive community. Anyone can learn at the academy — from expert artists to students with no experience at all. The curriculum is based on four levels of study — students must master one level of study before moving on to the next. Students can either study full time, three days a week or part-time. Ghassan has made tuition prices at the academy fairly low in comparison to other art schools in order to ensure that anyone who would like to learn can do so for a reasonable cost.

As for Ghassan — he finalized his American dream by officially becoming a US citizen this past June. His students and staff decorated the art academy with the colors of the American flag.

“My life was very difficult, I was scheduled to die at any moment,” Ghassan said. “I chose to come to America because I love it and I consider it my country in which my ambitions grew and flourished.”

Ghassan hopes that people would recognize the sacrifices made by early immigrants to America. He shared that he wants today’s generation to remember the way in which their ancestors built this country. He also implores the next generations to keep working on making the United States accessible to everyone so that more people can achieve their dreams. If Ghassan could get just one point across to those that hear his story — he would want it to be hope.

“Hold onto hope no matter how difficult it is and do not despair no matter where things are,” Ghassan said. “There is hope in life and difficulties are easy to break.”

REAL Academy of Art Colorado is located at 2055 South Oneida Street #120, Denver. You can find Ali Ghassan on Instagram and Facebook

All photography by Barbara Urzua